30 Teams in 30 Days

2021-22 Portland Trail Blazers season preview: Roster changes, depth chart, key storylines and games to watch

The 2021-22 NBA season is set to tip off on Oct. 19 (ET). In preparation for the upcoming season, we're dedicating one day between now and the start of the season to each team in the league.

Next up? The Portland Trail Blazers.

2020-21 season record

42-30, 6th in Western Conference

Notable additions

Greg Brown III, No. 43 pick in 2021 NBA Draft

Larry Nance Jr., trade

Cody Zeller, free agency

Tony Snell, free agency

Dennis Smith Jr., free agency

Patrick Patterson, free agency

Ben McLemore, free agency

Marquese Chriss, free agency

Notable departures

Carmelo Anthony, free agency

Zach Collins, free agency

Harry Giles, free agency

Enes Kanter, free agency

Derrick Jones, trade

Depth chart

Portland Trail Blazers depth chart (2021-22)
Starters Second Third Fourth
PG Damian Lillard Anfernee Simons Dennis Smith Jr.
SG CJ McCollum Ben McLemore
SF Norman Powell Tony Snell Nassir Little CJ Elleby
PF Robert Covington Larry Nance Jr. Patrick Patterson Greg Brown III
C Jusuf Nurkic Cody Zeller Marquese Chriss

3 key storylines

Defence wins championships

The Trail Blazers have had a top-five offence in each of the last three seasons. It's the other end of the court where they've run into some issues.

It was particularly bad last season. According to NBA.com, opponents scored at a rate of 115.3 points per 100 possessions against the Trail Blazers, ranking them 29th in the league in defensive efficiency. The only team below them was the Sacramento Kings (116.5).

Entering his first season as head coach of the Trail Blazers, Chauncey Billups said it's "not going to be optional" for this team to play hard defensively.

"To go to the next level, and be more competitive, and be more consistent, we got to be so much better defensively," Billups said. "I know that."

The core of the Trail Blazers remains the same as last season, but Portland did make some additions to its second unit this offseason, the most notable being Larry Nance Jr., who was acquired from the Cleveland Cavaliers in a trade. Nance is coming off of a season in which he averaged 1.7 steals per game, which was a career-high and tied for fourth-most in the league. He also averaged 3.4 deflections per game, putting him behind only five players - one of whom was his new teammate in Covington (3.4) - for most in the league.

Nance alone might not be enough to turn the Trail Blazers around defensively, but he's the type of player who could help them get back on the right track as they look to become a more balanced team.

Damian Lillard's future

All eyes will be on Lillard this offseason.

While he has four seasons remaining on his current contract - the last of which is a player option worth $48.8 million - there was a report early in the offseason that Lillard planned on requesting a trade. Lillard later denied that report, but he did make it clear that he expects more from everyone in the franchise moving forward.

"I think that's the stage we're at as a team where we all, not just me, not just my teammates, not just our new coaching staff, the front office, everybody in this organization must look in the mirror because we've constantly come up short," the six-time All-Star said. "We have to look in the mirror and say I have to be better because whatever it is we're doing is not working and it's not giving us the shot to compete on the level that we want to compete on."

The Trail Blazers earned a trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2019, but they've failed to get out of the first round in each of the last two seasons. In 2020, they fell in five games to the Los Angeles Lakers, who went on to win the title. In 2021, they lost in six games to a Denver Nuggets team that was without their second-leading scorer in Jamal Murray.

Lillard told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports that he walked away from Portland's loss to the short-handed Nuggets "disappointed."

The Trail Blazers didn't undergo a lot of change this offseason, so they're banking on their core, some improvements on the margins and a new head coach not only being the key to getting them over the hump, but keeping Lillard happy.

Whether or not it's enough, we'll soon find out.

What's Portland's ceiling?

Once again, it's going to be tough to get out of the Western Conference this season.

In a recent chat with Kyle Irving and Gilbert McGregor, we had the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns in Tier 1 of the Western Conference, the Utah Jazz in Tier 2 by themselves, and the Denver Nuggets, LA Clippers and Golden State Warriors - three teams that should be welcoming back key players coming off of season-ending injuries into the fold at some point during the year - in Tier 3.

That left the Trail Blazers in Tier 4 with the Dallas Mavericks.

Is it possible that we're underrating the Trail Blazers (and Mavericks, for that matter)? Of course. But regardless of where you might have them, there's still going to be a fight among those teams for the six playoff spots up for grabs, leaving two of them to battle it out in the Play-In Tournament.

Such is life in the Western Conference, where nothing comes easy.

5 games to watch

Nov. 14 at Denver Nuggets

After losing to the Nuggets in six games in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs, the Trail Blazers will be looking to make a statement in their return to Denver. Adding to the intrigue? The last time Lillard was in Denver, he lit the Nuggets up to the tune of 55 points and 10 assists.

Dec. 31 at Los Angeles Lakers

A New Year's Eve battle with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook. What more could you want?

Jan. 23 at Toronto Raptors

Powell has already faced the Raptors since being traded to the Trail Blazers at last season's trade deadline, but this will be his first game back in Toronto since leaving the franchise. Powell spent five and a half seasons with the Raptors and helped them win their first championship in 2019.

Feb. 24 vs. Golden State Warriors

A showdown between two of the league's best point guards in Lillard and Stephen Curry. This will mark the third and final regular season meeting between the Trail Blazers and Warriors, but hopefully Klay Thompson will be back in the lineup for Golden State by this point of the season.

March 2 at Phoenix Suns

The defending Western Conference champions host the Trail Blazers in a game that will be televised on ESPN in the United States. Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic going up against Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton should make this a fun one.

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